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Williamson Road Churches Changing With The Times

A few weeks ago I went to the 60th anniversary lunch celebration of the congregation I attended for 35 years in the Williamson Road neighborhood of Roanoke. Though still relatively small in numbers, St. James Episcopal parish, a block off the main artery into Roanoke from the north, is doing well these days with a female rector and a good balance of young and middle aged families and an outreach program larger congregations might envy.

Watching churches change over the years, I’ve seen that – like the people who support them – they have their ups and downs. Many flourish for a generation and then fall into decline in numbers and influence. The Roanoke Valley is full of these churches. A universal lament these days is the need for more young adults with children.

The Williamson Road churches are no different. With the exception of a few like Oakland Baptist and Huntington Court United Methodist, which date from about 85 years ago, nearly all the congregations that serve North Roanoke were started in post-World War II days.

That was the era when men were returning from World War II and starting families. They were helped along by such federal government thank-benefits as the GI Bill for free college educations and easy loans for the small houses that in the late 1940s began springing up like mushrooms. The area was a level tract that was still in Roanoke County – until a major annexation brought it into the city limits around 1950.

The little houses are still there and they sell for prices newly arrived immigrants to the United States can afford. In the past decade Williamson Road –“the Roanoke Valley’s Main Street” — has become ethnically mixed and a variety of folks have joined elderly couples and singles, some of whom are still living in the little homes they bought 65 years ago.

Recently I talked to the Rev. Kenneth Lane who has been pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in the center of the Williamson Road community for 22 years. He joked that maybe one day he’ll match the record of now-retired Harold Moyer who served Williamson Road Church of the Brethren for more than 30 years.

Lane has seen many changes from his study on Epperly Avenue. As pastor of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) parish, he is committed to work with other clergy and lay leaders to bring God’s love to people nearby whether or not they choose to become contributing members of his own flock.

Right now, Lane counts six Williamson Road area congregations as supporters of Helping Hands which offers limited emergency help to needy people. The church he serves is the call-in point where volunteers often receive as many as 30 calls daily, he said.

Gifts of about $30 are given for food and gas to people screened by such groups as The Salvation Army. At one time a lot of transients traveling on Williamson Road visited churches visible from the main street, but Lane said these have dropped off considerably since Interstate 581 directs them into downtown.

Besides being deeply involved in Helping Hands, Trinity Lutheran has maintained a thrift shop which is open most Saturdays and staffed by volunteers.For many years its small profits assisted Roanoke Area Ministries or the Bradley Free Clinic but now the emergency fund benefits. It’s used extensively, the pastor says, for members of the cooperating congregations supply it with clothing and household needs.

Ministers of the six most active churches in the ecumenical program meet regularly to stay in touch and plan occasional events such as the Good Friday service. In the past other joint worship opportunities survived for many years.  These included Thanksgiving and Easter sunrise services. Even earlier, about eight congregations in the area used to hold outdoor vespers on summer Sunday nights rotating clergy leadership. That was before even Lane’s time in the area.

Some of the individual parishes have encouraged ministries to the new ethnic minorities which have moved in since the start of the new century. Huntington Court United Methodist offers its original church for a Hispanic congregation. St. James Episcopal houses a Sudanese group on Sunday nights. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox has become known for its annual ethnic fairs and dinners.

Lane considers these churches, along with Bethany Christian (Disciples of Christ), Wlliamson Road Church of the Brethren and his own Lutheran group to be the most active currently in supporting Helping Hands. Others in the community have done more in the past and may in the future as newer clergy become more familiar with needs –at least Lane hopes so.

With its many older residents, there’s another joint monthly event that’s grown to include at least 50 people who gather at the Williamson Road Senior Center for lunch and a speaker on a topic of relevance to this age group. Lane noted that each Third Tuesday at noon a free meal is served and provides fellowship and a chance to learn across denominational lines.

These Williamson Road churches working together to make a small dent in human need represent a current trend in congregations in certain geographical areas taking on a specific project for financial and volunteer support. While ecumenical clergy groups clearly have declined over the past 20 years from what they were a half-century ago, some ministers have been able to inspire their lay members to help the needy where doctrinal differences are less likely to impede action.

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